AMES, Iowa – Selling food to the public is a big responsibility. Numerous state and federal laws are in place to keep the public safe and assure that important food safety protocols are followed.
However, navigating all of the dos and don’ts can be a challenge. Depending on what exactly is being sold, and how much, many Iowa food vendors may be exempt from state licensing and federal requirements. But knowing the requirements and best practices is still wise.
Since joining Iowa State University Extension and Outreach in 2015, Shannon Coleman has worked diligently to help educate and train Iowans who sell food to the public, about what they need to know.
“Iowa has very specific rules about what can and cannot be sold at the farmers markets and to the public without a license,” said Coleman, an assistant professor in food science and human nutrition and extension human sciences specialist at Iowa State University. “Sometimes the producer or food vendor just needs some basic guidance.”
In 2017, she worked with graduate student Leah (Gilman) Reever, to develop fact sheets and in person training that helped instruct food vendors about the rules, but Coleman quickly discovered that more convenient education was needed.
Coleman described the pilot in-person offering as a “a starter conversation with the industry. It was standing room only at every location. We actually had a waiting list of people who wanted to participate.”
In 2019, working with graduate student Tarah Temen, Coleman developed a pilot program that offered online food safety training related to the Iowa law on exempt home food operators and home bakeries. It's known as the “Home-based Food Operators: Regulations and Food Safety Course.”
The voluntary course has been offered ever since and today is available online every day of the year or in person by request, for $35. The course consists of six modules related to home-based food vendors and bakeries in Iowa.
The course covers Iowa policies and regulations, food safety basics, foodborne pathogens, foods that do and do not require temperature control, and safe production and preparation practices. The online course is available in Moodle, an online learning management system.
All documents and curriculum will be updated this year, to match new regulations being developed in Iowa.
Coleman works closely with the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals to make sure the curriculum is current and applicable.
Kurt Rueber, inspector with the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, said it’s been a pleasure to work with Coleman and other members of the Iowa State Food Safety Team.
“She has been at the tip of the spear helping out not only the producers and the industry, but also the students,” said Rueber. “It’s a team effort and I’m delighted that we have such a close connection.”
As an assistant professor, Coleman teaches students about food science and food safety in the laboratory, and through her extension work, she provides continuing education to the industry. She is a regular voice at the annual Iowa Farmers Market Association conference in February, and her fact sheets and publications can be found at farmers markets across Iowa.
In addition to the Home Based Food Operators course, Coleman also helps administer in-person Produce Safety Alliance Training, which explains the requirements of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act. For $20, participants get an update on FSMA and what they need to do to comply.
Donna Brahms, past president of the Iowa Farmers Market Association, said Coleman’s efforts have gone a long way toward educating small-scale producers and food vendors.
“Shannon is a really good example of how to get information to the people who need it,” said Brahms, who operates 3 Bee Farms in southwest Iowa with her family. “The trainings Shannon provides are very necessary to what we do and I’ve taken them myself.”
Brahms sells at six farmers markets a week, and said vendors need to educate themselves if they’re going to be selling a food product. Even if the product is exempt from a license requirement, Brahms said it’s still a good idea to take the training and know the best practices of handling foods.
Prevention is the key, and Coleman’s training helps arm vendors with the knowledge they need to prevent food safety issues.
“If you know what you need to do in advance, you can keep yourself from selling unsafe foods,” said Coleman.
She enjoys teaching food vendors what they need to know, and seeing them adapt food safety practices they may not have considered before.
“I like watching the ‘aha moment,’” said Coleman. “You can do an instruction here in the classroom but when you do an interactive activity and you see them actually connect the dots, that is the most rewarding part.”
A full list of food safety training opportunities and Standard Operating Procedures is available on the ISU Extension and Outreach Human Sciences website. Participants can register for food safety training on the same website.
Additional food safety resources for Iowa are also available on the Iowa Food Protection Task Force.
To learn more about the programs at Iowa State, Coleman can be reached at 515-294-9011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credits: 1. Vendor selling organic fresh agricultural product, by Rawpixel.com/stock.adobe.com. 2. Variety of jams at a farmers market, by Jolyn/stock.adobe.com.